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Xbox Live: Digital Divan, Or Digital Divide?

There's been much discussion of late about the way matchmaking works in Halo 2's implementation of Xbox Live, with regards to cheating, griefing, and other misbehaviors, and as compared to other kinds of venues and methods for enjoying networked games, such as LAN Fests and server browser-based PC games.

Jon (kons0uL) posted an item in his blog called Misplaced Effort, and followed it up with a response, taking into account some of the feedback he received.

"Digital Couch" was a phrase that got tossed around to describe Xbox Live. Many people have interpreted this phrase in different ways, and this has given rise to a lot of disappointment. Jon's response seems to recognize that some of his expectations were unrealistic, but it is still worth examining them because a lot of XBL subscribers feel similarly:

The virtual couch we were promised in the matchmaking system doesn't deliver the same experiences I was accustomed to with my weekly LAN and I would rather haul my TV and XBOX to a friends basement for a guaranteed three-plus hours of consecutive multiplayer bliss than wade through game after game of swearing 10-year olds just to find an anonymous congregation of like minded players for a few games in the comforts of my own home.

This isn't a question of misplaced effort-- it's a question of misplaced expectations.

This is a misinterpretation of the phrase "digital couch" that sets Xbox Live up to fail, because it cannot possibly be achieved; the system cannot make you good friends with millions of random people instantaneously.

The "digital couch" metaphor is meant to be a digital extension of your real couch. It's referring to the ability to get together with your friends and play as if you were on the same couch, but from the comfort of your own homes, through Xbox Live, without having to lug any heavy equipment anywhere.

If the author has friends he can play with in real life, why can't he play with them on XBL? Why doesn't that offer the exact same experience? Why are there any "anonymous congregation" of players involved-- where did his friends go?

Matchmaking is not a replacement for your friends list-- or for friends, for that matter. To expect the same experience from matchmaking as from a LAN is unrealistic. That is what custom games are for.

Yes, LANs are major events that force people to synchronize their schedules to attend, and that create real-world camaraderie (as well as food and drink) that cannot be duplicated on Xbox Live. That's why some people still have LANs. But that doesn't mean that Xbox Live is a failure, doesn't work, or that the "digital couch" concept is bankrupt.

Jon's response indicating that he wasn't suggesting that it is-- but I've spoken to many other players that do think that. They're frustrated with cheaters in ranked play that make leader boards inaccurate and destroy the integrity of player rankings, and in unranked play they are frustrated by the fact that the only matchmaking availalbe is "training" lists similar to the regular playlists. The cheating may be addressed as early as today, as we wait for autoupdate 4 to hit.

Xbox Live can be a digital couch, if you treat it that way by using the Friends and Clan lists to create custom games-- not matchmaking games-- and your teammates take the time to schedule online play so you have enough players for a good game, just like you'd have to at a LAN event.

As for matchmmaking-- that's another story.



I would like to say that I have achieved "virtual couch"dom many times in Halo 2, but only in custom games with existing friends or long-term Friends. In these cases I have much the same experience as I do in LANs. Except for the "sharing of food and drink" thing, which is a staple of human social interaction. No, I can't pass Doritos around or share beer over Live (regretably) but I can have that feeling of playing with good people and having a rollicking good time doing so. (Heck, sometimes the post-game banter lasts longer than the games themselves in particularly social groups.) But matchmaking is designed to get individuals or small groups playing ASAP in a competitive environment... an entirely different experience. It's more akin to tournament play, and that's perhaps why cheating and poor sportsmanship grate so much. (Where are the damned umpires? Why has this twit not been ejected yet?) This is also an unfair comparison, as XBL can't possibly supervise matchmaking anywhere near as closely as a tournament, but at least it's closer to addressing the original design goal of matchmaking. -- Steve wouldn't want to join the tournament circuit... there being no "suX0rs" category in which to compete.

I entirely agree with you Narcogen. I was involved in that blog and the resulting forums on HBO. The standard set forth by Jon's expectations is quite unreachable. However, I am still concerned with filling my friends list with "like-minded" players. There is one major factor working against any further extension of the "digital couch" beyond my current friends list: With so much cheating and griefing on LIVE we (my clan) has become increasingly sarcastic and unsportsmanlike towards other players who otherwise might have been potential friends, thus crushing the oppurtunity for "couch extension". Our behaviour is typically in response to how we are being treated on LIVE, although there is no excuse for I behavior, thus it remains unjustifiable. They too have probably had too many negative encounters and have allowed it penetrate their game play and maturity levels. This behavior, from both parties, results in a general distrust and unsurpassable contention. This being so, my clan remains small and my friends list even smaller. Laud Trevlin